The admiration expressed for Mariátegui in Latin America and beyond is not matched by a real study of his writings. Since his death in 1930, many have invoked his authority though in most cases illegitimately. He has been claimed as the source of various brands of sui generis Latin American socialism, yet we know that during his life he fought bitterly against the pretensions of Haya de la Torre, apra and all who sought to claim some Latin American exemption from the laws of the class struggle. ‘The Anti-Imperialist Perspective’ which we publish here makes this very clear, and explicitly warns against that type of bourgeois nationalist demagogy which has now re-emerged in Peru with the regime of President Velasco. Velasco has, of course, also sought to appropriate the memory of Mariátegui and his complete works have recently been published in 20 volumes in Lima. From this essay, the reader will be able to judge the impudence and hypocrisy of this homage from a Government which fiercely resists any attempt by Peruvian workers, peasants, students or teachers to initiate a serious challenge to capitalism and imperialism in their country. During the period when Mariátegui was writing bourgeois nationalist governments could, as he points out in this essay, indulge in ‘revolutionary’ demagogy so long as it was only directed at the residual structures of feudalism, which were in any case a barrier to the advance of capitalist and imperialist social relations. Today it is not only feudal remnants which can be sacrificed without loss, but also certain antiquated forms of imperialism based on plantations or the extractive sector. Another Peruvian Marxist, Anibál Quijano, has recently analysed the Velasco regime in terms reminiscent of Mariátegui’s characterization of the bourgeois nationalism of his own day, in a penetrating study on Nationalism and Capitalism in Peru (Monthly Review Press, 1971). The surest indicator of the real direction of the present military nationalist demagogy in Peru is the fact that from its inception it has sought to stamp out any independent initiative of the workers or peasants, from the revolt in Ayacucho in the middle of 1969 to the shooting of strikers and deportation of revolutionary leaders in November 1971.
Mariátegui was born in 1894, during the final stages of Peru’s unsuccessful war with Chile. At the age of 14 he began work on a newspaper in Lima and there came into contact with anarchist and populist ideas, especially those inspired by Manuel González Prada, who called for an apocalyptic transformation of Peruvian society that would humble the oligarchy and liberate the Indian masses from their ancient subordination. In 1918 and 1919 Mariátegui helped to found two journals, Nuestra Epoca and La Razôn, which diffused the ideas both of the avant-garde in art and literature and those of the great student revolt inspired by the Cordoba manifesto. La Razon was soon shut down and Mariátegui sent to jail by the Leguía Government.
In 1920 Mariátegui went to Europe, where he was to remain until 1923. It was in Europe—and especially in Italy where he spent the greater part of his time—that Mariátegui came into contact with Marxism. Mariátegui was greatly impressed by the new political and intellectual developments which he encountered and was to write prolifically about them—some essays from this period were published together as La Escena Contemporánéa in 1925. The Russian revolution and the struggles of the Italian workers aroused his interest in Marxism, which was to be particularly nourished by the influence of Antonio Gramsci. Mariátegui attended the Livorno Congress of the Italian Communist Party in 1921, and in 1923 he formed the first four-member cell of the future Peruvian Communist Party in Rome.
Mariátegui returned in 1923 to Peru, where he was soon engaged in stormy political struggles. He was to play a seminal role in the Workers’ University as the first exponent of Marxist ideas in Peru to gain a wide audience. This led both to occasional arrest and to increasing clashes with Haya de la Torre, and apra after its foundation in 1924. In a celebrated series of studies Mariátegui sought to examine from a Marxist standpoint the nature of imperialist oppression in Latin America, giving a greater prominence to cultural and superstructural levels than was usual in most Marxist discussions of the subject. In his best known work, Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana, Mariátegui insisted on a unsentimental approach to the understanding of Latin American history. The Independence movement of the early 19th century had not shaken the structures of colonial domination despite the fact that it had conquered the formal insignia of sovereignty—indeed the Independence movement expressed a reactionary fear of Spanish liberalism as much as genuine enthusiasm for the liberation struggle. Mariátegui’s sensitiveness to the articulation of cultural and superstructural factors within the social formation—reminiscent of Gramsci’s Marxism—led him to analyse carefully the special oppression of the Indians and to recognize the importance of this question for the revolutionary movement.
In 1927 Mariátegui helped to found the Peruvian Communist Party. ‘The Anti-Imperialist Perspective’ was presented at the first Congress of Latin American Communist Parties held in Montevideo in late 1929. Mariátegui was too ill to attend and it was read by Julio Portacarrero. Composed shortly before his death from tuberculosis, it can be regarded as a sort of political testament. In it he examines the role of the national bourgeoisie in the struggle against imperialism. At the time, some Latin American Marxists were searching for a Latin American equivalent to the Kuomintang—the latter ironically being regarded as the exemplar of a political force representing the national bourgeoisie. Mariátegui resisted the idea that the nascent revolutionary movement should in any way tie itself to bourgeois nationalist politics, in terms which remain fully relevant today: ‘While we must not fail to make use of any element of anti-imperialist agitation, or of any means of mobilizing those social sectors that may eventually participate in the struggle, our mission is to show the masses that only the socialist revolution can present a real and effective barrier to the advance of imperialism.’